Life Together: Holding On (Last in Series)
My sermon notes from Sunday, February 19th, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. This sermon wraps up the Life Together series.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone gathered for worship, especially welcome and good morning to those gathered with us online. As we take some moments to listen to our scriptures, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I’d be willing to wager this morning that each of us carries a relationship regret or two in our hearts. We each could think of a name, if asked, of someone we have lost along the pilgrim road of life. I mean someone lost to tempers, to arguments, to disagreements, to insults, to injuries and to frustrations. It seems all too human to have stepped on toes and had our own trod upon, and when the dust settles someone has been pushed away or withdrawn. For many of us, this has probably not been helped by social media and the many wars of opinion we wage on various platforms every day.
How We Got Here
We began this sermon series six weeks ago, a series entitled “Life Together: Foundational Practices for Building Relationships and Communities. The premise has been that in following the examples and teachings of God and of Christ, and following the wisdom of other biblical writers, we can create transformative relationships and a faith community that is vibrant and healthy.
In quick review, we have spoken of these six important practices modeled by God and Christ, and taught in scripture:
- To listen: to take the posture of a listener… giving one another an ear, wanting to hear and understand one another.
- To ask good questions: to seek clarity and understanding with one another, valuing our conversations and good questions above having all the answers or always being right.
- To give the benefit of the doubt: to assume the best of one another, to choose to believe the best of one another, making every effort to be proved right in that belief.
- To make sure that our words are life-giving: to build up those who hear us, remembering that no injury to us gives us license to tear others down, but letting our amazing gift and ability of speech be a blessing to those who hear us.
- To be a people who share: to truly open ourselves up to one another and anyone in need, sharing because we know that we are blessed by God to be a blessing, not just so that we are ourselves are satisfied.
- To be a people who love genuinely and actively: to love as Christ loved his disciples and closest friends, always ready to serve and uplift them, for truly love is the things which gives meaning to our words, our actions and our faith,
and now in our final week…
- To be a people who hold on, who holding on to one another: following the example of God and Christ, believing that it is worth the cost and worth the effort, we are a people of forgiveness and reconciliation.
What does it mean to be a people of holding on? It means that even though we very humanly have those regrets we talked about, and we have relationship misfires and we have trouble letting the practices we learn from God guide all our words and actions, we also very divinely have the capacity to maintain hope and a readiness to reconcile.
It’s the message of the prophets to Israel again and again, God has not given up on you! God is ready and waiting for people to open their hearts to reconciliation. The prophets again and again use proximity language: God is near, God’s arm is not too short. Jesus uses the same kind of language when he says: the Kingdom of God is near, this is the year of the Lord’s favor!
It is human to struggle with these things and to struggle with one another, and it is divine to maintain open hearts and ready love for the chance to bring back together what has been broken.
Our Gospel reading this morning, Matthew 18:21-35, is probably familiar to you, the seventy-seven times or seventy times seven passage… Peter is in the role he so often plays for us, asking questions and probing further… in Matthew 18 Jesus has just laid out a way to deal with conflict, seeking conversation and help in making reconciliation. Peter asks a fairly understandable follow up question, Ok how many times? How long do I have to allow for reconciliation? How many times must I keep my heart open and ready? And Peter surely imagined that seven times would be super generous, right? Jesus says in reply: 77 times, or possibly even more outrageously, seventy times seven… 490. Either way, don’t you think most of us would have lost count by 77?
What is Jesus saying about forgiveness? I heard someone once say that Jesus is talking about the math of the heart. It’s a math that doesn’t keep count, but a math that keeps hope.
- Jesus is not saying that abusers have a license to keep abusing.
- Jesus is not saying that we should take advantage of one another and demand perpetual forgiveness.
- Jesus is saying that we need to stop counting. We need to stop being a people who write one another off.
- Jesus is saying that we are a people who wait in a posture of forgiveness and reconciliation so that those things can happen when the time comes.
His parable helps us understand that Jesus is talking about following God’s example of forgiving, and he also gives us the vivid story of how gross it looks when we who should so thoroughly understand receiving forgiveness deny it’s place in our own hearts for others.
Increase Our Faith!
In a parallel passage, Luke records the exchange a little differently: Jesus says in Luke 17:3-5 “So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”
As a people who have such an understanding and forbearing Lord, we should be a people best able to exercise this crucial practice of holding on, even when it gets tough to do so. And so maybe our prayer is “Increase our faith!” As human as it is to mess up our relationships, it is divine to make room for reconciliation!
And how did Jesus go on in Luke 17 to answer their prayer for increased faith? He said: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” In other words, you have in you what is needed. We have within us the same divine potential, if we will give it room to grow and bear fruit. Keeping a posture of reconciliation: we can do this.
This is a faith thing, church. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to talk about it. If it were easy we wouldn’t need Luke’s famous story of the prodigal son who abandons family to waste his father’s money, just to return home in shame and find a father waiting to welcome him. If it were easy the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have written about bearing with one another and putting up with one another. It’s the kind of thing that looks like God among us. It’s the kind of thing that signals to the world around us that something different is going on here, something good, something worth checking out.
We’re not holding on to the anger. We’re not holding on to the hurt. We’re not holding on to every insult, every harsh word or thing that keeps us apart. Instead we’re a people holding on to hope, holding on to love, holding on to forgiveness; forgiving debts as we have been forgiven. We’re a people holding on to people. For in God’s kingdom and God’s church, as in God’s heart, no one is disposable.
Amazing and forgiving God, O God of Holding On, raise up in us the faith that holds on, make us a people formed after your heart. May we find in ourselves that faith which is needed to rise above the failures and injuries which would divide us, until your church is a glorious witness and well of hope to a needful world. In the name of Christ our Lord, who with you and Holy Spirit reigns over our hearts. Amen, amen and amen.